Advice from Spill's therapists
Reframe the purpose of the tasksTry this formula to set boundariesKnow and accept your limitsRelated resources
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Becoming more assertive at work

Spill's qualified therapists answer real questions from employees about assertiveness at work.

I really struggle to be assertive at work, especially when asking someone to complete a task, perform a task a certain way, or holding someone accountable for not having done a task. How can I structure those conversations so that we emerge with an action plan that doesn't leave me picking up other people's admin?

Our first therapist suggests...

Reframe the purpose of the tasks

You need to reframe the way you think about the purpose of the tasks that you mention in your question.

At the moment, the way you are approaching them suggests that you see asking for improvements as requests other people will receive as negatives but they aren’t.

If you're a leader, your whole reason for being is to develop the skills of your team so that they can get the best from themselves not only while they work in your team but wherever they go in the future.

If you are fearful of holding someone to account for not having done what they said they would you are letting them down because your inaction is tacit approval of their less than adequate performance.

While you might be sparing yourself the awkward feeling you get from telling someone that they haven’t performed to an expected level and allowed your team member to avoid the receipt of some constructive criticism you are not helping them to improve and that is holding them back.

Being assertive in holding other people to account is something you have to do in order for it to become comfortable, you can’t wait to feel comfortable about it before you do it.

So, you begin by making it clear to the other person where you feel improvements are required, then you can ask them how they think the situation can best be addressed.

Always be honest and get straight to the point. Never apologise when asking for improvements where they are necessary.

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Our second therapist suggests...

Try this formula to set boundaries

The struggle is a common one. Assertiveness is a communication style, but it’s also a practical skill (so needs practice). It can feel hard for some people if they haven’t been taught how to use this skill (and this is when we can often revert to passive-aggression…. N.B. don’t try this!). Good news: there’s a simple formula to help.

Assertiveness falls between aggressive and passive styles:

  • Aggressive: my needs are more important and must be met. Your needs are irrelevant.
  • Assertive: these are my needs, these are your needs. Let’s find a way forwards.
  • Passive: I have no needs/they are not important. Your needs are greater.

The simple formula you can use is:

Their needs (we hear and repeat the person’s needs back to them) …HOWEVER… My needs (we tell the other/s what we want to happen)….SO…..How shall we move forwards?

For example:

I totally understand you need someone to help with this at the moment…HOWEVER….I have a tight deadline that I’m struggling to meet….Is there someone else who could help? Or could we do it later?

You talked about the action plan as the possible root of the stress (or solution). Are you assigning yourself actions in this plan? If so, why? Are you doing this out of obligation or genuine support? Or are you being asked by your colleagues and unable to say no? Or are you unable to delegate, lack trust and need a sense of control?

A barrier to being assertive (having a voice) is fear, such as fear of consequence (being shouted at), fear of rejection (the other person disapproves), or fear of shame (others laughing at us trying to speak up). Our fears may keep us in the passive style and we end up becoming resentful or annoyed that things aren’t going as we hoped or planned. People pleasing and putting the needs of others first can be driven by fear rather than compassion, and end in fatigue rather than support. We can only offer time and energy when we have it, otherwise we will build resentment towards those taking up our resources. You may want to build stronger boundaries around what is OK and not OK for you to offer (at the time of decision). Do you understand yourself well enough to know when you have the resources to give (OK) and when you are stretched (not OK)? As well as practising this skill, your barriers to assertiveness may be worth exploring in a therapy session, if that's something you have access to at your company.

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Our third therapist suggests...

Know and accept your limits

I'm hearing that you want to progress your career, support colleagues, and create professional boundaries. The truth is you won’t always be able to support colleagues AND set boundaries. At times you may have to choose between one or the other, so the real question is about discernment. How can you know when to offer support and when not to? Nobody else can answer this question for you, as we all have to decide on the limits, rules, and preferences that we have for ourselves. That is unless you have a manager who gives clear and specific guidance and expectations on this.

Jobs differ. For example, in my work, which is high in autonomy, offering support to colleagues is not a priority day to day (although I do it at least a couple of days each week). It might help to think about how much of your role is actually about supporting team members (is this in your job description?) and in what ways does this support generally happen? How much of your time can you reasonably spend supporting others? This is likely to fluctuate depending on your own workload and the nature of the work you are doing. If you feel you must never say “no” to a colleague who needs support, you run the risk of getting overwhelmed and burning out. Perhaps you need to give yourself permission to have limits. Aim to be fully aware of the limits of your role, understand your working environment, and the limits of your personal capacity at any given time so you can know what to say “no” to.  

Practice setting boundaries and asserting needs. You can start with situations and people that feel easier to deal with to build confidence. Whenever you feel uncomfortable there may be a boundary issue present so pay attention to your feelings. If you ever need time to think before deciding if you can help, let the other person know you will get back to them when you have looked at your workload. If you need more support, book a therapy session if that's something your company offers as a benefit.

I hope this helps.

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Watch a recording of our mental health webinar on 'How to set, respect and stick to boundaries'

This on-demand webinar looks at different types of boundaries, why we fail to set good boundaries, and how to set better boundaries at work